Chasing the Ending of The Sopranos

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I am amused at how upset so many viewers are at the ending of the HBO series The Sopranos.

We Americans are very much geared toward “closure,” a seemingly magical term signifying something akin to acceptance of a storyline’s conclusion, in the arts or in real life. So, the image of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) watching his daughter join his family for a rare public outing or perhaps watching a gunman come out of a restroom with a gun pointed at him (and perhaps his family as well) is not the closure so many viewers apparently wanted.

But what did you want? Tony going into the witness protection program? Does that sound plausible? A last image of a fractured family, barely holding it together, eating onion rings, before, presumably, Tony will be going to jail? Or perhaps viewers thought one of the most affecting series in the history of American television should have concluded, after eight years, with the boss lying in a pool of blood, with family crying over his prone body, with a mournful swell of violins?

In fact, series creator David Chase, in writing and directing the last episode, came up with the perfect ending for a show so many people did not want to end. It is filled with ironies that are more rewarding to ponder than a clear-cut conclusion.

Take for example the irony of a show that had shatteringly powerful depictions of violence, now ended with an inferred but unseen fusillade of bullets. How about the irony of the group Journey on the jukebox singing “Don’t Stop Believin’?” That could refer to Tony Soprano believing in the future of his family. Or his wondering whether his life, devoted to the Mafia, was worth all the death and despair that attended it. Yes, could it be that as the screen went blank on Steve Perry’s singing voice wailing, “Don’t stop!” that David Chase found the best ironic comment on both the show’s storyline and our obession with how this remarkable show might end?

I hope those who are foaming at the mouth about the ambiguity of the end will keep in mind one of the most important strands of thought to come out of the last few episodes of The Sopranos. Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is disturbed to learn that many in her profession find career criminals use therapy to justify what they do, rather than leaving it behind. And who gets to leave the Mafia anyway? And in what condition?

And what if some of the unease we felt in that last diner scene had nothing to do with a hit on Soprano? In fact, what must it be like to live your life wondering if each moment may be your last outside of a penitentiary?

One of the fascinating aspects to the series is how members of the Soprano bloodline cope with the knowledge of what the scion of their family does. Carmela, when not filled with maternal angst about her family, loses herself in materialism. A.J., suicidal after a failed love, turns from righteous indignation at society’s ills to a darkly transcendent moment, glorying in the destruction of an SUV he was in moments before.

And Meadow, most ironic of all, decides to go into law, motivated by her father’s humiliation at the hands of the FBI. It is an FBI that ostensibly has provided Soprano with information to annihilate his adversary Phil Leotardo, and perhaps, have his remaining adversaries do the same to him. The only character exultant during this is an FBI agent who relishes the self-destruction of the Jersey mobsters.

There is a perfect fatalism in not knowing whether Tony is gunned down. The point is that within that world, killing immediate family members was supposed to be off-limits. And yet, Phil Leotardo is whacked in front of his family. Before he goes down, an innocent man and woman are mistakenly killed. The fact that Tony Soprano’s wife and kids may witness his own death–and be potential victims themselves–at the end makes a stunning commentary.

The escalation of the war between Mob families in The Sopranos is the brutal, unflinching reminder that even their rules can go out the window. It is a reminder that a war in Jersey or a war in Iraq or a genocide in Darfur or even a war of silence between estranged relatives can go on and on and on, even when a majority of people involved don’t want it to. The rapid closure we sometimes seek in life, like the closure we wanted in The Sopranos, often eludes us.

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